Surround Sound: The Big Bang, Part 4

Twenty-eight. That’s how many soundtracks have shuffled through the always open transom of Short Ends and Leader Central in the last couple of months – and they just keep on coming. Last week alone we were sent links to a classic collection involving such known entities as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and Sunset Boulevard. As usual, the extra workload makes it almost impossible to keep up, especially when dealing with the demands of Award Season and the upcoming Oscars. So like our lifetime, the scores have been piling up, begging us to address them with the usual critical aplomb. In this latest installment our February special (which will now leak over into March), every Wednesday will feature a Special Surround Sound column covering this glut of motion picture music. Hopefully, over the course of the next four (or five, or six) weeks, we’ll be able to access the value in these often overlooked cinematic souvenirs. If this latest batch is any indication, there are quite a few gems to still be unearthed.

In week four, numbers 22 through 28 reveal a true difference in approach and design, from ambient to outright over the top, traditional to the slightly more modern:

Drive Angry 3D: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

Sounding like a cross between a deranged spaghetti western and a thrash metal band in the middle of hemorrhaging, Michael Wandmacher’s score for the upcoming Nicolas Cage cash grab is a hyperactive mess of amazing sonic segments. You get the goofy aggression of “Full Frontal Shotgun”, the quiet banjo picking prettiness of “Palomar Motel” and the NIN like burn of smaller moments like “The Iron Godkiller”. Bigger moments like “The Bridge” tend to fall into stock shocks, horns and strings blazing in a false sense of fear factoring, but when combined with the abject weirdness of the instrumentation in something like “Let’s Go for a Ride”, the results more than speak for themselves. This is an unnerving score given an even more disturbed patina with tracks like “Mass vs. Acceleration” and “Say Thank You or She Dies”. It also suggests that, after years of working away in the background, Wandmacher is ready to break out into the big time.

Monster Mutt: Music by Chris Walden [rating: 6]

Before reading this soundtrack review, we recommend heading over to YouTube and checking out the mind-bending trailer for this bizarro-world family film. The story centers on a friendly dog, dragged off by a scientist for some manner of mindless experiment, the end result being a horror hound complete with bad body suit F/X costuming. It has to be seen to be believed. On the other hand, the score by composer Chris Walden is so stereotypical of this type of film – lilting orchestral flourishes, mad stabs at sudden “thriller” significance and suspense – that it all becomes a wash. Still, there are some standout moments, like the piano pastiche of “Looking for Max” or the equally effective “Monster Puppy”. While the longer tracks tend to support the movie’s mindless action scenes, it’s the shorter pieces that save the day…more or less.

La Sombra Prohibida: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Inspired by the works of Lovecraft and featuring a decent version of the author’s fabled Cthulhu, this otherwise dull sequel to the Spanish horror fantasy film La Herencia Valdema suffers from a similar sense of familiarity, score wise. As conceived by Arnau Bataller, the aural backdrop here is a mishmash of movie references (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Hellboy), genre contrivance (sci-fi, fantasy, dread) and horror/sci-fi shrillness. It’s as if the composer deceived to simply divest himself of any invention or originality and simply go with the suggested soundtrack of the last 30 years in post-modern movie making. You can even hear bits and pieces of popular names like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer here and there. While not wholly contrived from what came before, this is still a dull exercise in the same old supernatural support.

Mao’s Last Dancer: Soundtrack [rating: 7]

At first, one is afraid that composer Christopher Gordon will fall into the trap that all Asian-set films seem to subject audiences to. The first few tracks here – “Out of the Well”, “Village Life”, “Story of a Frog” – are tinged with traditional instrumentation which make an otherwise solid sonic situation sound almost stereotypical. Then the gorgeous “Pas de Deux” arrives, and you realize there is more to this music than mimicking a particular cultural bent. The rest of the way, we get the same Eastern influences, but they are countermanded by the classics (Burgmuller’s Giselle, Minkus’ Don Quixote, Swan Lake) and occasional light touches (“The Consulate”). By the end, we are mesmerized by the combination, using the music as a means of conjuring specific cinematic images in our mind. For a soundtrack, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

The Rite: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 6]

As a movie, this low rent ersatz European Exorcist is about as frightening as a fried clam. As a score, Alex Heffes tries to avoid the genre contrivances the storyline suggests. For the most part, he succeeds. The first two tracks – “The Procedure” and “Going to Rome” have a nice, atmospheric drive. Then “The Accident” arrives and the first few hints at something sonically familiar flare up. “The First Exorcism” carries this over. But for the most part, Heffes tries to circumvent expectations. We don’t get many fake scare moments in the music, and most of the time a quiet, thoughtful approach is applied. Sure, some questionable moments pop up in pieces like “Michael Remembers/ The Hospital” and “Phone Call to Father”, but for the most part, the soundtrack to The Rite retains a nice slice of aural originality.

Music from Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy:Original Soundtrack Recording [rating: 8]

When it came to creating the backdrop to Stig Larsson’s seminal crime series, The Millennium Trilogy, Jacob Groth has his work cut out for him. Not only was he setting the tone and temperament for this much beloved set of bestsellers, he was doing so without input from the author (who died before the tomes became huge international bestsellers). With their combination of electronic menace and typical movie showboating, the selections here speak volumes for their creator’s talent. “Millennium” sets things up with an unsettled combination of counteractive noises, while “Blomkvist” introduces a more symphonic sweep to the work. “Would Anybody Die for Me” may not contain the most captivating vocal work ever, (they are provided by Misen Groth), the music is evocative and sinister. Throughout, the tracks place with convention. “The Scheme” has some suggested backwards masking, while “Abuse” sounds like an industrial plant waiting to explode. While it doesn’t cover all the music made for these movies, it is a stunning representation.

Baaria: Music by Ennio Morricone [rating: 9]

Like seeing an old friend’s name on a piece of correspondence, the signature sonic sweep of Ennio Morricone is alive and well in this autobiographical film from Giuseppe Tornatore. The two have a long standing collaboration, having worked together previously on the classic Cinema Paradiso (as well as several other offerings), and the comfort level they have with each other is obvious. Sprinkling the score with lots of local color (the movie centers on Tornatore’s boyhood Sicily), Morricone uses the standard techniques that have made him one of the artform’s very best. Opening with the glorious, multifaceted 11 minute “Sinfonia per Baaria” and working through such wonderful tracks as “Lo Zoppo”, “La Vista” and “Verdiano”, the aural backdrop has an energy and drive that few modern composers can compete with. Morricone is an old school pro at such epic approximations, and his work on Baaria is yet another feather in his by now massively plumed cap.